Review of Le Trou

Le Trou (1960)
10/10
The emotional swan's song of a great artist
20 January 2004
Probably, to really get "Le Trou", this splendid, intense movie, you have to be conscious that the great Jacques Becker was dying during the making of the film. A quiet stoicism permeates this work of art. The story is supposed to be very sad, but it isn't. The guys on the screen are too tough, by no means apt to mourn their dire destiny or, metaphorically, to ask for the viewer's sympathy.

We have the true story of the hole dug by a bunch of in-mates to escape from a jail in Paris. The screenplay is taken from a novel of the distinguished writer and film-maker Jose' Giovanni, himself formerly a convict. Becker chooses to tell the story in the simplest, neatest possible way. No music at all, an essential, dry, sharp yet powerful dialog. The in-mates do their job, to try to escape. The director avoids the annoying cliché, typical of the American jail-movies, of showing the wardens as sadistic torturers. They are tough and strict, they don't like but they feel no hate for the prisoners. The wardens just do their job, that's all. In fact, there are no really despicable characters in the film. At his last appointment with the art of cinema, Becker seems to accept and forgive all human beings.

A brilliant idea is to show how the guys turn common objects and waste iron into the tools needed for the escape (a key, a lamp, a pick, a sand-glass). The little periscope made with a tooth-brush gives raise to a shocking scene, few seconds of great cinema. We follow the in-mates' apparently endless, exhausting labor of digging and sewing. That should be rather boring for the viewer, but it isn't. How comes there's not a single moment of bore in the film? That's the privilege of Art.

The work of the camera and the black and white photography are sensational, and convey the intense emotions of the characters. The psychological study is made in such an understated way that you may overlook it at a first view. But, after seeing the movie a second time, and knowing the development of the story, you fully appreciate how the psychology of the characters is treated, with accuracy and depth. The actors make an excellent job. This is stunning, thinking that "Le Trou" was the first movie for Philippe Leroy and Michel Constantin, later prominent actors of French cinema. And Jean Keraudy wasn't a professional actor, he was one of the in-mates that actually dug the hole fourteen years earlier! (at least, this is stated by himself at the beginning of the movie, and is testified in several books on French cinema)

Are there deep messages in the film? Two wardens bring a fly to feed a spider. There is the spider, a patent symbol of death, ghastly in its immobility. Two prisoners are peeping and wondering: what the hell are the wardens doing? Got no idea. And who cares, after all? Maybe that is Becker's dry, ironic message. Don't be too deep. Fight against bad luck, be stoic and brave. Who cares, after all?

My opinion is that the artist Becker, displaying the same toughness of the guys on the screen, just fought to leave us a major work of art. Our task of viewers is to enjoy and love it. "Le Trou" is an unforgettable film, which honors the art of cinema.
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